Issue Ten – Inception – March 11th 2013
Douglas Rushkoff could very well be our perfect interviewee here at LSD. Harnessing the rational to illuminate the transcendental, sharpening reason and academic rigour to crystallise a non linear, deeply human radicalism, he synthesises the measured discipline of scientific method with a psychedelic enlightenment immersed in the counter cultural understanding of social geometery and multi dimensional consciousness. From his revolutionary first book Cyberia which projected the evolutionary leap into a digital matrix, he has gone on to pen 10 best selling works of non fiction, novels, graphic novels and a steady stream of ground breaking columns for the New York Times, The Guardian, The Daily Beast and Time magazine to name but a few. A professor of media studies at NYU and the New School University, his weight as a both a contemporary and a timeless thinker and his prescience about lightning speed technological shifts and the social ramifications they engender make him a profoundly resonant voice for a turned on, tuned in generation comfortable on the labyrinthine fringes of consciousness. A truly worthy heir to his early mentors like Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson, he has channelled the exploration of inner and outer space reborn to the West in the intuitive, empathic maelstrom of the 60’s through the digtital frontier and into the boundless possibility of a quantum kissed future.
What impact did the social and cultural shifts of the ‘60’s have on your development personally and the community around you
Well I wasn’t conscious during the seminal shifts of the 60’s or a direct, contemporary part of them, but I was born into a culture where 60’s values had already been substantially marketised and the real energy had been pretty effectively muted. I remember a couple of experiences on the playground where strange young people with long hair would drift in wanting to play with the kids, only to realise way later that they were probably tripping hippies getting off on our innocent energy! But I didn’t become fully aware of what the 60’s actually meant – the full impact of which really took place in the 70’s – until I was in college, having my own psychedelic experiences and looking for our lineage, our heritage; at which point you start pulling out the Velvet Underground through Brian Eno to examine where the roots lay and what they meant. Then of course you begin reading Tim Leary, Ram Das and everybody else. But that non linear sensibility, that lateral thinking, that psychedelic realisation was perhaps best described for me by Robert Anton Wilson as coming to see the world as just one of many possible reality tunnels. He shaped the idea that each of us has our own template, our own filter through which we observe and construct reality, all of which are both equally arbitrary and equally real and that it almost doesn’t matter what angle yours is coming from as long as you realise that it’s both plastic and temporary. At the time, I was a theatre director, so for me, theatre seemed to be the best way to impart those ideas and that prism onto life because theatre is already an acknowledged social construction, so if you can show the transitions in and out of the play – being in character and in narrative, then not – that metaphor should prompt people to conceive of their own consciousness in those terms.
So I got very interested in Bertholt Brecht who for very different reasons tried to highlight what he called ‘the alienation effect’ by emphasising that ‘this is a play – the actors are donning their costumes and now we’re going to act out these scenes’. Now he did it in a search for intellectual distance and a bid to create revolutionary activity, but what with interpretation always subsuming intent, for me it was all about going meta and that cosmic element of a play within a play within a play. The question then becomes, how many of these realisations do you have to have before you look over your shoulder and wonder ‘who’s the audience watching me, what’s the play I’m in and who’s writing the script’. Psychedelics and theatre were parallel for me and very much about the same kind of exploration.
What confused me was that many of the most psychedelic people I knew after college didn’t end up going into crazy musical experimentation, lighting design or the wilder arts – all the things I thought they’d be doing, but moved out to Silicon Valley and started working for nascent computer companies. They were all into seriously bizarre stuff like virtual reality, 3D imaging, chaos mathematics and non linear equations and I needed to figure out why that had happened. As luck would have it, I was living in LA at the time, so I would take regular field trips up north to see what they were up to. They’d be working at Sun Microsystems by day before coming home to their hippy communes in Oakland’s Skyline Drive to shave the buttons off a Peyote cactus and embark on all night fractal drawing sessions. I realised that the most out there, psychedelic people I knew had fully embraced computers and networking technologies as their principal path towards realising some of what they were searching for and had seen within their voyages into consciousness. And they would quite literally spend huge chunks of their time trying to render their hallucinations on screen (which is what Ralph Abraham and some of the Chaos mathematicians were talking about and of course the fractal is a visual representation of a feedback equation) or just understanding that we were now constructing the operating system for the next stage of human evolution and they wanted to be in on that. These were people who were already comfortable hallucinating reality, so who better to visualise the realities of the future that we’d all be living in?
So I guess the lessons, the mindsets and the epiphanies of the 60’s combined with the microchip helped me see in a real sense – not just in a theatrical or artistic way – that we were developing and creating a fresh reality and the computer seemed like the most literal tool and the best metaphor to help people understand the open sourceness of the world they were living in and the obligation we have as conscious human beings to participate actively in the writing of these new paradigms.
Was the open source generation of early networking a classic example of a self organising complex system on a consciousness level– a virtual organism?
Absolutely, and the funny thing was that the ‘makers’ of the internet kept trying to resist that quality. The internet was originally built to share computing resources rather than being based around people talking to one another. The fact was that there simply weren’t that many computers around. There were lots of terminals, however, and networking was devised to share the cycles of a powerful processor somewhere in a university with everyone who needed them. So the whole thing was based on a platform and a logic completely divergent to corporate capitalism or a market based framework. Consequently it became very biased towards social activity and establishing a connection between people. The Defence Department had built this ‘thing,’ thinking that scientists would use it to discuss the merits of weaponised technologies and the finer details of nuclear detonators, and much to their horrified surprise, it was used to debate Star Trek and swap recipes. It became naturally social. At which point of course they gave it up and offered it to AT&T who didn’t want it either, as they couldn’t see the profit and ultimately, it fell into a government niche because no one organisation saw the value in exploiting it. Until, of course, the web came along and it turned into something resembling a shopping mall as the corporations all piled in. Now corporations actually own the web which is why we’re about to fight and lose so drastically on this Net Neutrality Act.
Up until now where the Wikileaks affair has highlighted the power corporations have over net activity, how has power not manipulated technology and the virtual realms more successfully
Well because it’s not really a controllable thing. In the end you don’t control it by controlling it, you control it through a spectacle. People will find streaming video more compelling than actually talking to one another so they will be happy to surrender net neutrality in exchange for their broadband flicks or their Amazon streaming media. It won’t be a Chinese system of top down control that ends up defeating the more social agendas of the net, but a much more voluntary surrender of agency for entertainment.
Which begs the wider question – is commercialisation a far more potent weapon than repression and voluntary surrender a finality that resistance to repression, however unsuccessful never reaches?
Exactly. And there’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome in play too. It’s the difference between those cults that lock you in a room and beat you and the cults that convince you to believe that through them you are expressing who you are and realising ‘the real you’. The ones that make you think that you are entering into all of this voluntarily are far more successful over time than those who try to beat you into submission.
Even a couple of decades ago, if you lived in some fairly remote village and thought a certain way, you were basically ostracised or burnt if we go back a little further. Has the internationalisation and the scope for connection between like minded people that the internet provides helped drive the development of subculture, where particularly in the West, changing ‘official’ society is often far less relevant than constructing an individualised reality where geography is no barrier to assembly.
It’s interesting. On the one hand it’s made subcultures completely accessible, but on the other, in doing so, it’s almost killed them. It took me 10 years, not of active effort, but 10 years of wandering before I ended up becoming part of the social group that included Timothy Leary, William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson and those folks. It took me 5 years before that until I even found the relevant texts and really understood them. There was a journey that was required, almost a form of initiation quest before you got to the juiciest material and people and I think there was a value in that both for the people who make it there and for the people receiving you when you arrive. You learn a lot on the journey and it allows a social group to be self selecting, in that only the people who found this thing are here, those who aren’t here yet will make it when they find it, and those who never find it weren’t meant to in the first place. Now, it feels that everything is at most 2 clicks away. You may not find it in the first Google search, but if you click on something that looks relatively pertinent, you’ll find it there. And when that’s the case, it kind of has a levelling effect and the nooks and crannies of our subcultures end up much, much closer to the light of day. You don’t walk down a hallway, push a button, go up in an elevator, find the room and enter this dark cavern. Everything has a street entrance with a store front , and it just feels like something might get lost in that bargain.
There’s this sense that in the Western world, if you want to support causes or protests – whatever it may be – all you have to do is click like on Facebook and you’re done. It almost seems that your online profile somehow absolves you of the need to actually do anything concrete and that purpose is being devalued by the facility of registering your 2 seconds of fleeting solidarity
I’ve written a lot about that – where blogging takes the place of action. The dumbest thing that the Egyptian government did was to turn off the internet, because the minute you do, it sends people out into the streets to connect with one another for real, and then before you know it, you get a revolution. If I were advising the dictators, I’d be saying ‘Let them eat Blog’. If you have a person who might otherwise be unsatisfied, angry, rabble rousing, and seeking to institute change……….give them a laptop, let them sit at home in their bed and link to an article they just read in the Huffington Post or the Guardian. They don’t even have to have the thought themselves let alone read the whole piece – they just have to link it, tweet it and blog it and share their thoughts on the thoughts of someone else who had a thought on another thought. Or to clarify – commenting on the commentators comments on another commentary. And nothing actually happens. That’s where you want your population if the goal is for them to have no effect on anything. You’d be better off involved in the most local and parochial issues known to man directly than you would be knowing a vast amount about global issues and spending your valuable time blogging about other people’s blogs.
As truth becomes less of a magical concept and more of a mass produced commodity while the mainstream press gush over the ‘power of the internet’ and the capacity of social networking to move whole populations, how much do you buy into the Twitter changed the world scenario and how do you see things evolving in the immediate future.
The power of the internet for a civilization which is still in what we would consider its ‘Jacobean’ phase is genuinely momentous. And that’s where Arab culture is. They missed the printing press and the Enlightenment. They missed the revolutions that reshaped the Western world in the 16th, 17th 18th and 19th centuries and the politics, science and cultural upheavals that occurred in those 400 years. And now they’re leapfrogging us and living the Enlightenment Facebook style rather than Martin Luther and Thomas Paine style. We on the other hand, after a century of spectacle and entrenched in a post ideological hypnosis, react and experience these media very differently. I don’t mean to sound insulting about Americans, I mean obviously I am an American, but for us, what’s going on in Egypt and Libya has the same cognitive impact as what’s happening to Charlie Sheen. Given that news is such a new thing and news and rumour on an evolutionary level are effectively stimuli for certain regions of our brain – in the same way that primal responses were grouped into ‘threat’, ‘great food source’ and so on, our responses trigger in much the same way to Charlie Sheen as they do to Libya, especially as these media are so new and we don’t quite know how to parse them. Even for those of us who in theory know better, only know better through the prism of our consumer profile. I may be a Guardian reader, and someone else may be a Gawker reader, but the emotional responses and the extent to which we have any impact on the stories we’re reading do remain for the most part, pretty similar.
Has this made truth an even more relative concept in that we seek reinforcement of our understanding of ‘truth’ through our consumer profile – one guy heads to The Guardian while another switches on Fox news, and in this polarisation, both sides tend to sensationalise their interpretations of fact.
I would argue that’s partly the fault of digitality. All of this activity is taking place on top of a binary operating system – 1’s and 0’s and I don’t just see that as a metaphor. Constructs built on a binary operating system are going to be binary by nature. They’re artificially but necessarily reductive. The net is a place where people make many more choices on a minute by minute basis and digital media inherently requires discrete choices in ways that analogue reality does not, and when you’re making all these choices, you tend to get more polarised – am I a ‘this’ or am I a ‘that’ – which side am I on? When I have the means of creation in my laptop and the capability of a broadcast studio in my bedroom, it’s very hard not to equate access to the tools with the ability to use them. Most of us think that because we could broadcast the news from our home, that means we really ought to, or that purely because we could write an op-ed for the Huffington Post on our laptop, we therefore should. This false sense of capability and expertise combined with the digital landscape’s bias toward polarised ‘it’s one or the other’ choices ends up polarising us even further and entrenching us even deeper in these poorly reasoned but deeply felt stances.
Is this the ultimate paradox about democratisation? That everybody should have both equal access and power, an idea few of us would argue with in theory, but the reality turns out to be a long way from informed engagement and the measured exercise of that individual voice
This brings me to the most uncomfortable territory that we could talk about which is the old debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. Walter Lippmann was the founder of public relations, and he believed that people were just too stupid to participate meaningfully in democracy. That you can’t trust the masses with important decisions about how the world works, so what you need to do is put a benevolent elite in charge and have them make the decisions that they will then manufacture consent for by hiring crafty public relations representatives. John Dewey meanwhile was an egalitarian educator out of Columbia Teacher’s College who wrote a barrage of essays and letters to Lippmann insisting that view was madness. He held that democracy was possible, and if people could be educated and we could create a different relationship between people and their news media, then they could actually weigh issues rather than find out about them through some highly charged corporate mouthpiece. And most people over time have come to agree with Lippmann over Dewey despite the bad taste his premise may leave in their mouths. If you look at the state of democracy in America, we’ve got stupid people voting against their interests, a Congress that is incapable of taking meaningful action because the actions that they’re taking are designed purely for their impact on the spectacle, and parties proposing policies that contradict what they supposedly stand for in order to create the illusion that they’re doing the thing that the spectacle says that they should to get votes. It’s an utter mess. If they didn’t have to cater to the culture of advertising and to the spectacle, at least they could have an honest debate about what it is they want to do. So OK, you want to help the rich because you believe wealth will trickle down, and you over there want to help the poor because you believe wealth will trickle up……. let’s at least get there. But they can’t. If he were alive today, Lippmann would say ‘look – you Americans are going to get Sarah Palin and uncontrolled, mass, angry fascism because you are afraid to engage in the intelligent fascism I could provide for you. And if it’s going to distil down to a choice between one kind of fascism over another, I guess I’ll take intelligent fascism over angry mob fascism.
It’s interesting. The Republicans are forever painting themselves as the downtrodden honest, god fearing, hard working victims of the liberal media elite, and yet they seem to have pulled off a quite extraordinary PR coup in selling deregulation, corporatisation and exponentially growing tax cuts to the blue collar bastions under the cover of a culture war. How did this happen?
It happened in much the same way as it did in Germany during the 1930’s. People get angry when they’re feeling poor, and those who can most effectively stoke that rage by providing it with a target end up winning. Apart from all the pseudo religious aspects the Right has in play, the target has also become blacks and Hispanics instead of Jews. ‘They’re taking our jobs, getting entitlements I deserve, the reason I don’t have money is because they’re taking my money and anyway – they’re different and they’re scary’. And the poorer they get, the more they vote for you. The worse you do for them, the more enthusiastically they vote for you. It’s the opposite of what happened in places like South Africa where when people start doing slightly better and get a TV beaming in idealised lifestyles, their expectations rise and they start clamouring for change. When it goes the other way, the poorer you make people, the angrier and more controllable they become. That in itself is an interesting lesson.
Then you have the situation where you or I can write the things we write and basically be hated by people we would aim to help. At some point you really do just want to say ‘Fuck Em’ You begin to understand why sometimes a Hunter S Thompson or a William Burroughs will turn arch conservative for an essay or two. There’s a tempting concept – ‘If they’re going to hate me for voting in their interests, then I might as well enrich myself to the point where I benefit from voting against them’. I could go get a job in advertising, earn a couple of hundred grand a year and vote in my own short term material interest and against any form of benefit for the poor or regulation to stop the pillage of local economies and then suddenly they’ll approve of me. I’d still be able to access a private education or even an illegal abortion for my daughter as my new found wealth would give me connections straight to the doctor. It’s dark.
The real fundamental equation underlying all this lunacy seems to be the very simple and utterly surreal – Unrestrained capitalism = Freedom and democracy to the point at which government playing a non profit role in health care is filthy communism and insurance companies profiteering wildly reflects sound principles of freedom and social justice
It’s a religious thing. In America we have Protestantism as opposed to your Anglicanism which may be protestant in name, but is basically a less ritualistic Catholicism with a different political structure. American Protestantism is founded on the idea of individual salvation rather than the collective salvation of a congregation, and you have a personal relationship with Jesus. That dovetails incredibly well with consumer capitalism which is based on individualised success and measured by an individual’s achievements and possessions. When you have those two forces forming the foundation of the American ethos, it’s no wonder that between Frank Baum, the Theosophist writer of the Wizard of Oz and department store window dresser and Dale Carnegie’s time and today, we’ve ended up with consumerism as the American religion. Consumerism was explicitly bound to salvation to the point at which people actually believed that if you had a good house with good stuff in it, it was because God is rewarding you for having a good soul. They were understood as one and the same, and this idea of the rich man having as much chance of a place in heaven as a camel does getting through the eye of a needle is simply not the way things are understood here in the US – at least to a point. If you then modernise that with the Landmark Forum, Werner Erhard, Esalen and more recently, The Secret– it all amounts to the same thing. It is the American religion, it is every man for himself and the only counter cultures in that regard are the Mormons (who are very collective) and organised crime. Those are pretty much the last bastions of a shared, community based system of values.
As we come to the end of this interview, taking a sharp left turn, how do you feel the ideas, the themes and the projections of Cyberia have weathered the years
Cyberia was, in many ways trying to prepare society for what I saw as an acid trip. I really believed that the emergence of digital and computer technologies would force an extremely psychedelic experience upon us as a society. I saw that people were intensely afraid of these emerging technologies and I wanted to make them less afraid so they could have a good trip rather than a bad trip. What I’ve observed in the close to 20 years since writing it, is that Americans were so committed to the bad trip they were on, that they’d rather use these digital technologies to amplify it rather than embrace the new trip. Now I feel that it’s almost come full circle, and that now the first generation raised entirely in the computer universe is in their twenties, a generation that accepted all of these changes as a part of nature rather than as artificial creations, we’re beginning to see a digital counter culture emerge. We’re seeing the first people who are saying ‘wait a sec – Facebook kinda sucks. This isn’t how I want to make my friends or live my life’ and are starting to consider other paths and alternative ways of connecting. So I feel we’re now at the point I thought we were at when I wrote Cyberia. That’s why I’m doing this conference in the States this October called Contact, because I’m really interested in exploring those original possibilities for deep connectedness and conscious evolution. I think we might finally be ready., we might finally be in 1992 where you realise that actually, this net is an ’anything’ engine, these computers are ‘anything’ machines, we can now open source our reality and make of it what we will. So I’m hopeful again.
Issue Ten – Inception – March 11th 2013